How to Learn Korean

Learning Korean

Over the past couple of months, I’ve been making an effort to learn more Korean. I know what you’re thinking: I’ve been here for six months, so what have I been doing all this time?! My mom agrees with you, and is always (rightly, I might add!) reminding me to learn more of the language. I think after the initial period of getting settled, coupled with the mini-upheaval of changing jobs, I never felt like I had the mental space to tackle such a task until lately.

In my defence, Korean is one of the 4 hardest major world languages for native English speakers to learn. The others are Japanese, Chinese and Arabic. The research estimates that you would need 2200 hours of dedicated study to become proficient in any of those languages, which makes the whole thing seem a bit hopeless! But fortunately I spend 8 hours a day talking to cute munchkins who are incredibly skilled at speaking and writing Korean, so I’ve been using them to my advantage.

1. Learn to read Hangul

Hangul is the Korean alphabet with 24 vowels and consonants. It’s actually one of the easiest written languages in the world, even though it looks a bit scary at first. Unlike Japanese and Chinese character systems, Hangul is based on sounds. It was created by King Sejong, quite a popular guy in Korea, back in the the 1400’s. His goal was to improve the literacy rate of the Korean population by making a system so simple that anyone could learn to read it. It was said about the characters: “A wise man can acquaint himself with them before the morning is over; a stupid man can learn them in the space of ten days.”

It’s true though! It doesn’t take long to learn the alphabet, maybe a couple of hours.

I had a lot of success with this infographic, Learn to Read Korean in 15 Minutes. It’s a cute cartoon, but it’s also really effective. I still remember most of my consonants based on the memory aids they give you.

I also love the app Memrise, which I used to solidify my knowledge of Hangul. The system uses smart, user-submitted memory aids to help you learn new letters and words, and they’re usually very on point and helpful. Memrise has all kinds of courses for language, trivia, general memory training and more, and it’s all free. I used this course for Hangul.

Of course, learning the characters often doesn’t help much because although you can sound out and read words, you don’t actually know what the Korean word means. So while I can sound words out phonetically, it doesn’t really help me unless I learn the word itself.

2. Learn some basic phrases

To my credit, I did learn some basic phrases when I first moved to Korea. I try not to go anywhere new without knowing the words for “hello” and “thank you”, and Korea was no exception. Here are my top 4:

  • ????? (annyeong haseyo) = Hello!
  • ????? (gamsamnida) = Thank you
  • ????? (mian hamnida) = I’m sorry
  • ???? (eolma eyo) = How much is it?

You can also learn phrases from an app – there are tons on the app store or online. One that I downloaded (but admittedly have not used much) is this Learn Korean Phrasebook. It’s fairly extensive, very easy to use and has voice recordings of each phrase from a native Korean speaker. It’s helpful to have around in case you need to learn something new in a jam, but I usually prefer learning phrases organically from my students or my friends. I also know how to say “I love you!”, “stop that” (3 different ways), “let’s go”, “don’t go”, “turn right” and “turn left”, among a few other things.

I also very recently discovered the Youtube channel Talk to Me in Korean which will hopefully teach me even more!


3. Learn helpful words

This is where my students come in. I have a few classes that have an English spelling test every 2 weeks. I recently began telling them that on the day that I teach them their new English spelling words, they could teach me Korean spelling words, and that we’d have our tests on the same day. This doesn’t take up too much class time, they absolutely adore teaching me Korean words, and I get to learn something new! I’ve been writing out my words on an index card with the English translation, and practicing them each day while saying the words out loud.

Thus far, I know the words for chair, eraser, orange, pencil, crab, flower, book, earth, sun, bag, hand, finger, face, he, she, we, and person. It’s pretty awesome to see the patterns between the letters and start to recognize some words as I hear them spoken in class.

There are some courses on Memrise that look great for learning individual words as well, like this one for the 100 Most Frequent Korean Words.

4. Practice!

Of course, the most helpful thing you can do when learning any new language is to practice, practice, practice. I’ve been trying to practice saying the phrases I’ve learned to my classes (and laugh when they gasp and ooh and ahh and get excited over my attempts to speak Korean) and to shop clerks (it’s thrilling when they understand and reply without batting an eye). I try to learn new phrases from native Korean speakers both mini and adult, and use the new words I’ve learned as much as I can.

Despite the title of this post, I have definitely not finished learning Korean and it’s very possible there are better ways to learn it that I don’t know about. Do you have any tips on learning Korean, or languages in general? I’d love to hear them in the comments below.